Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

America's Two Cold Wars

America's Two Cold Wars
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Does America have the means to wage two wars at the same time, one in Asia against China, one in the Middle East against Iran? During the Cold War, strategy experts pointed out that the United States was the only power that could conduct two conflicts simultaneously. This indeed was true for military conflicts.

Today, as economic war is becoming in Clausewitz’s terms, "the continuation of politics by other means", or, more precisely, a "substitute for war", what is really happening? Are there economic "wars of choice" and economic "wars of necessity", as there were yesterday for military wars exclusively? Can we describe the ever more stringent economic sanctions against Iran as the modern form of a war of choice and the sanctions against the Chinese giant Huawei as an expression of a war of necessity?

In other words, Donald Trump may not be the right president for the United States, but his policy towards China contains some positive elements. A voice had to rise up to put an end to Beijing's deviating and unacceptable behaviour.

America does not intervene, as it did yesterday during the Cold War against the USSR, in the name of the general interest. It does so in the name of America’s interest alone.

The problem, of course, is that America does not intervene, as it did yesterday during the Cold War against the USSR, in the name of the general interest. It does so in the name of America’s interest alone, and in total disregard and despise of the multilateral order. Europe, for its part, is legitimately divided between the satisfaction of finally seeing a major player speak out loud and clear to China and the fear of being America's next target in its process of systematically deconstructing multilateralism.

In order to clarify the current geopolitical situation and the nature of the risks we collectively face, it is essential to understand the objectives of the different actors. What do the United States, China and Iran want?

Against China, America intends to reaffirm its indisputable status as "number one". The world is probably no longer unipolar, as it was for a decade, from the collapse of the USSR in 1991 to the collapse of the Manhattan towers in 2001. Nonetheless, America does not tolerate any genuine rivalry. It opposes the commonly held idea that the 20th century was the century of America, and the 21st century, that of China.

On the military level, China is far from matching the United States. On the economic level, American growth is bouncing back phenomenally as China's growth slows significantly. However, in terms of technology, China is starting to compete on an equal footing with the United States. Worse still, it scores spectacular points in some strategic areas. Is it acceptable? Can we let an ever more authoritarian power be able to use information that it alone would possess for its own benefit?

Huawei in China, nuclear power in Iran - the parallel is easy, perhaps too tempting. Can we leave the "absolute weapon" in the hands of a regime driven by an absolute ideology? American intentions are in fact clearer than they appear and could be summed up as follows: in Asia, curbing China, and in the Middle East, overthrowing the mullahs' regime, with the double risk of boosting the Chinese' energy and self-sufficiency, and strengthening the hard-line clan in Iran.

A structurally contradictory regime

Chinese intentions are exactly the opposite of those of the United States: first, ensuring the supremacy, if not the total control, of China over Asia; second, becoming once again the world's leading power; and thus, finally, affirming the superiority of the authoritarian and centralized Chinese model, and further on the preeminence of Chinese civilization, over the democratic model and, more generally, the Western civilization.

Chinese intentions are as offensive as defensive. They seek to keep alive a regime rooted in a contradictory structure, both communist and capitalist. This requires increasing control over society, all the while maintaining a sufficient level of growth and a high patriotic involvement.

Washington, Beijing, and Tehran: no one wants war and everyone is playing with fire.

Tehran's intentions are also very largely defensive. All too aware of its own weaknesses, the mullahs' regime has engaged in a twofold headlong rush, extending its regional influence and permanently using provocation to ensure its survival.

Washington, Beijing, and Tehran: no one wants war and everyone is playing with fire. From the China Sea to the Persian Gulf, the risks of accidental wars keep growing, along with the danger that opponents misestimate their own and each other’s strengths.

Objectively, America’s assets against China, and even more so against Iran, are the best in both military and economic terms. However, the Chinese people's capacity for sacrifice, if not suffering, is galvanized by the evocation of unequal treaties imposed by the West, and, although it is not to be exaggerated, it is much greater than that of the American people. In the same way, the Iranian regime has always played the humiliation card.

By contrast, America must face the reluctance, if not hostility, of its citizens to engage in distant conflicts. In this context, the economic weapon may appear to be both less costly and more effective. Nonetheless, it contains the risk that economic war may accidentally lead to plain war.

A haunting question rises: if there is a war, will it occur in the China Sea or in the Gulf?


With the permission of Les Echos (published 25/05/19)

Copyright : Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English